“MIRACULOUS” is one word that could describe Paul Kraus’ life from the very beginning when he survived the Holocaust to later beating the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
And the 73-year-old retiree counts each day as a blessing.
His life’s been one of many remarkable twists and turns – born of a Jewish woman in a Nazi labour camp, baptised a Catholic soon after, being raised in Sydney as an Anglican, teaching for many years in Catholic schools and finding peace among Catholics in meditation.
Along the way, there’s been three separate battles with cancer – the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma, prostate cancer and a brain tumour.
At every step he’s turned to God.
Paul’s mother Clara made sure it would be that way from the night he was born.
“I was born in a Nazi labour camp (in Austria) at the end of 1944, and my survival was quite miraculous,” he said, retelling the story at the bayside Scarborough home he shares with his wife Sue.
“My mother had been imprisoned for the crime of being Jewish and … on the night I was born she had a vision of Jesus and she vowed that she would follow Jesus for the rest her life, whether that was a day, a month, or for how long.
“That’s, in essence, how I became a Christian, and why I was brought up as a Christian.”
With there being no priest in the camp, it was “quite a few months after she was released that she found a very loving priest who didn’t care that she was Jewish, and he baptised me”, Paul said.
He went on to become a high school English and history teacher in New South Wales, and wrote a book on Clara’s life, called Fear No Evil.
“That book highlights her life which was incredible the way that God had looked after her when she stared death in the face, and, I must say … she was an amazing person because she met Jesus the night I was born and she never ever once went back on following Jesus as her Lord,” Paul said.
“And she was determined that if God would save her she would be a follower of Jesus Christ.
“What is miraculous – one of the things – she only died in 2010 aged ninety-six in Newcastle, NSW. It’s amazing that she survived that long.”
Her husband and Paul’s father Emery, who was in a concentration camp but separated from the family, did not live long after the war and Clara, Paul and her eldest son Peter migrated to Australia as refugees in 1949.
“We rented a tiny house next to an Anglican church in Sydney,” Paul said.
“She sent me (to the church next door) and she came very faithfully to that church for decades, which happened to be an Anglican church.”
That’s how they became Anglican.
“In (one of my books), I highlight the fact that, putting denomination aside … I mean, Jesus speaks to us with whatever label we happen to wear, and Jesus wanted her and her children to follow Him, and that’s essentially what happened,” Paul said.
With that background, Paul’s always had an ecumenical spirit.
“When I say I’m ecumenical, I’m not trying to put things under the carpet,” he said.
“I know what the differences are, and they’re substantial, but at the same time, in this secular world in which we live, I think we really are one in Christ. That’s what matters.
“So I don’t want to be made out to be some kind of liberal who thinks, ‘Oh, doesn’t matter if you’re a Catholic or what you are …’ I’m not into that mould either.”
Nevertheless, Paul went on to develop close Catholic ties.
“I was a mature-age student at university, and I didn’t want to go and teach for the state department, and I applied to teach in Anglican schools and was rejected, and the wonderful brothers, from a De La Salle school that I applied for, took me on like that (a click of the fingers), and I just felt as though I was one of them, and they accepted me,” he said.
“In a way, my story is very, very unusual, but, praise God, whether I taught with the De La Salle Brothers or the Augustinians, who were fabulous to me … They accepted me as one of them … and I was.”
That connection deepened after Paul’s battle with mesothelioma.
He was diagnosed in 1997 when he had surgery for an unrelated condition, and was given only months to live.
“About five or six weeks after I was diagnosed I went along to an Anglican priest in Sydney who founded a healing ministry there; he prayed over me and he also anointed me with oil, and, even though I was very, very ill, in my heart I knew that somehow God wanted to save me,” he said.
He also went to a 10-day retreat for cancer patients that focused particularly on meditation and nutrition.
Paul radically changed his lifestyle especially in his diet and practising meditation but the meditation he practised was not the kind he was taught at the retreat, but more based in his Christian faith.
Meditation helped him face life and death in the present.
“Meditation is being concerned with the present, not the past nor the future,” he said.
“I didn’t worry (when he had mesothelioma), ‘Oh, it hasn’t gone yet’ or ‘When will it go? Lord, please take this away’. I lived with it.”
Paul said his early practise of meditation then was an important precursor to his experience with the World Community of Christian Meditation promoted by Benedictines the late Fr John Main and Fr Laurence Freeman.
“I was aware, as a Christian, that God was in this so-called secular way of meditating (at the retreat),” Paul said.
“I used that very privately as the way God was speaking to me.”
Fifteen years down the track and miraculously clear of mesothelioma, Paul joined the Living Waters Meditation Centre, founded in Newcastle by Sister Carmel Moore, of the Sisters of St Joseph Lochinvar.
She’s written the foreword for Paul’s latest book Poetic Medicine and Paul’s been invited to speak to her meditation groups about his insights on healing, prayer and meditation.
“I’ve come across a number of cancer patients, and they say, ‘Oh, Paul, what are you doing? What are you doing?’,” he said.
“And I’ve said, ‘You know, if I ignore the mind, I wouldn’t last much longer, because the body and the mind are very, very much interconnected. If you ignore the mind and,’ I said, ‘if you ignore the spiritual reality of a living God, you are really ignoring the basis of what you’re all about’.
“If we ignore our spiritual reality, we can’t really get well again.
“I’ve always stated, I haven’t prayed to God that, ‘Please (cure me) …’ – well, I did pray that he might cure me – but he’s spoken to me and it took a long time to become clear, that curing and healing are two different things.
“I really want to show people that healing – that Jesus’ main ministry in the Gospels was about healing people, not just of the withered arm or the blind man, not just that, but healing of body and mind.
“And that’s shown in some of the Gospel stories, and I’d like to follow that example of Jesus, that we all need healing in some way, and Jesus offers it to us.”
For Paul, Christian meditation is about being in God’s presence and God being present to him.
He said meditation “is being concerned with the present, not the past nor the future. John Mayne says this in his books”.
“I’ve seen people who’ve passed away but they have lived in God’s presence …,” he said.
“We don’t play a game with God in terms of curing. Curing and healing … healing’s far more comprehensive than curing – that’s the point I’m trying to make.”
Paul describes his experience with cancer as a healing not a cure.
“Really, illness, in a sense, refocused my life in a very, very beautiful way,” he said.
“It was a means of growth, and, well, praise God, I’m seventy-three now, I’ll be seventy-four late this year so I know God’s given me three score years and ten, and I’m very happy.
“Each day I live is a blessing, and that is important – that each day I live is a blessing, that’s very important.
“And I try and pray for others.”